The Melvins and Kurt are asleep at the wheel of fortune
ON THIS January night in San Francisco’s foggy’ Richmond district, the Melvins sit in the Victorian house that guitarist Buzz Osborne and bassist Lori Black rent from her father and her mother, Shirley Temple Black. Tomorrow morning the band is scheduled to enter Brilliant Studio, where they will spend three days working on their first album for a major label, Atlantic. The record company has flown me in to interview the Melvins about their project, but Osborne rambles on about politics, a subject he knows little about. (Later, drummer Dale Crover apologizes: “I’ve never seen him do that before.”) Afterward, the band heads for their rehearsal space. “To get the songs ready?” I ask Osborne on the way over. “To write the songs,” he answers. “I thought we were recording the second week of January. I just found out three days ago it was the second day.“
For all the buzz around Kurt Cobain’s presence as producer, the key players are slouching lethargically toward the Melvins’ major-label debut. After the band finds a studio with only a week to spare, Cobain doesn’t arrive in town until the morning of the first session. That day, in the studio at 6 p.m., he’s asleep on the couch. Osborne and Crover lay down one track the first night, while Cobain and Black nap. In a winning euphemism, Cobain praises the “spontaneity” of this approach. “They’re not prepared at all,” he says, “which could be a good thing.”
Once they get going, all this slack attitude pulls taut, and the Melvins belch out songs in efficient blasts. In the two-hour window between the time the gear is set up and the 10 p.m. curfew (when the studio’s masseuse neighbor starts calling the cops about the noise), the Melvins lay down four songs in as few takes as possible, three being the max. Jonathan Burnside, who has engineered the Melvins’ last three records, says the band used to not even listen to their playbacks. “If it feels good,” Osborne explains, reducing a 70s cliché to a statement of dissipation, “why waste time and money going over and over it?”
The session also moves quickly because Crover, Osborne and Burnside have worked together for so long they can step into each other’s heads. Crover and Osborne have been Melvins for 10 years, since they were teenagers in Aberdeen, Washington, where a young Cobain watched Osborne, who was three years older, flip off the metal cover bands of the region and snarl a demented punk rock. When the Melvins lumber into ‘Joan of Arc’ in Brilliant’s spacious, wood-floored studio, the music is sluggardly, but it’s also big, menacing and impossibly, hugely tight. “Damn, he’s a good drummer!” Burnside exclaims at one point, as Neil Young look-alike Crover (he actually plays the youthful Young on the ‘Harvest Moon’ video) keeps time with click-track ease. During playback, Cobain — who’s been dead on the floor for some time now — shakes his head with wonder. “God,” he says, “we’re not going to have to mix a fucking thing.”
Cobain is the somnambulant lord of this strange manor. He sleeps, he hardly says a word, he misses whole songs and lets Burnside run the show. But when stirred, he shakes his hair out of his clear blue eyes and mumbles something that reveals he’s disarmingly aware. “If there’s any band that’s influenced me, it’s the Melvins,” he tells me when he reluctantly agrees to an interview. “There’s so much emotion in Buzz’s songs. So much passion and anger.”
If rock & roll is attenuated adolescence, then look no further than Aberdeen for the roots of the Melvins’ bitter bloat. The cover of their latest album on Boner Records depicts an Indian slumped on a horse, in homage to Aberdeen’s Native Americans, who drank disinfectant to get high and whose kids beat Osborne up in school. “We have a distorted view of Indians,” he says. “The reservations are not a pretty sight up there.” (The record was called Lysol until the manufacturer forced them to drop the name; the sullen Melvins released the album untitled rather than come up with a new one.)
A small coastal timber town, Aberdeen is the kind of close-minded American community that drives restless, talented youth to extremes. Osborne’s dad works in the lumber industry; his mother’s a “professional mom.” He was the first in the family to go to college, but didn’t last two semesters at the community school. His father — “a real prick,” he says — wanted him to join the Army, but when Osborne fell ill in high school he went to the local recruiter’s office and got a permanent excuse from service. “I decided a long time ago this band was going to be all I did,” he says. “I was going to burn my bridges so I didn’t have anything to fall back on, so that I just had to live with this. Wherever it took me.”
Crover’s mom, on the other hand, a working single mother, has been supportive of the Melvins since day one. “One day,” says the affable drummer, “my mom said, ‘You’ve got to get in a band and go someplace.’ That very day Nirvana bassist Chris Novoselic brought Buzz and Matt over, and I joined a band.” That was 83. The Melvins played their first gig in ’84 (“a year before Kurt even saw a punk-rock show,” Osborne claims) and released their first record in ’85. Cobain remembers the early Melvins’ songs as being almost hummable. “They used to have more of a pop element,” he says. “They were a three-chord punk-rock band. Then they started slowing down.”
The Melvins were inspired by bands like the Stooges and Black Flag, but more by their dirgelike numbers than by the harder, faster grooves. Influenced by Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Motorhead as much as by the Sex Pistols, they weighed punk’s defiant flippancy down with the leaden heft of metal. Their first records, ’86’s 7-inch reissue with six songs and no name and ’87’s Gluey Parch Treatments, both recorded with Matt Lukin, established the basic sound. The Melvins play as if they’re bulldozing through a thick, sticky sludge. Crover pounds floor toms that sound like timpani drums, the bass rumbles like a subway train beneath your feet, and Osborne makes metallic guitar thunder. The doom-and-gloom lyrics frequently descend into gibberish; Buzz admits to being so cynical about message songs that he makes up words at the mike.
NIRVANA CREDITS the Melvins with being one of grunge’s progenitors. Black, who only observed the band’s early career, says they “inspired a lot of the Seattle sound.” Osborne is sceptical — he feels no kinship to Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney or Screaming Trees. “I think it’s hilarious to see the word grunge next to Pearl Jam. There were tons of Flipper-like bands when we first came to Seattle. That was grunge. The guys in Pearl Jam — even when they were in Green River — their ideas of music and the Melvins’ ideas were 180 degrees opposite. The Melvins were rooted in Black Flag. Green River were rooted in ‘We want to be rock stars.'”
The Melvins also spent a lot of time in Olympia, where there were “a million bands like Beat Happening,” Osborne says. With album covers whose cute, brightly colored rabbits mask the warped music inside, the Melvins explicitly parodied the K Records love-rock scene. “Olympia was not ready for us,” Osborne says. “There were lots of dumb upper-middle-class kids who would laugh at us while we destroyed their places. I look back at those times fondly.”
Unenamored with the mythical Northwest scene, the band left in ’88, leaving Lukin to join Mudhoney and picking up Bay Area resident Lori Black. “There was nothing in Seattle,” Osborne says. “We did everything we could there. It wasn’t a hip place when we left, and I still don’t think it is.” The Melvins quickly found themselves at home in America’s mecca for weirdos and radicals. The band stopped drinking and began recording on a biannual basis for the local label Boner. Steady touring, a consistent musical output (’89’s China, ’91’s Bullhead And Eggnog) and monthly payments from Boner gave the band a solid career in the underground. They weren’t becoming household names, but they didn’t have to work day jobs either.
With Nevermind, Nirvana’s success both raised the expectations of alternative bands and opened doors for them. Cobain and company were especially eager to help the Melvins, plugging them in interviews and wearing their T-shirts on Saturday Night Live (“You couldn’t buy better advertising,” Osborne says). Once seemingly destined to be stuck on the indie rockpile, the Melvins were approached by several major labels. They went with Atlantic, where Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg had been appointed head of A&R. A&R rep Al Smith approached them directly and knew their music, and the label offered a good deal.
The signing has already forced the Melvins to change and raised doubts among fans who don’t want their clubhouse disturbed. Black departed in ’91 to have surgery for cancer and was replaced by Joe Preston, who also moved into the Blacks’ house. The Melvins recorded not-Lysol with Preston; the three also made solo LPs that featured artwork parodying the Kiss solo albums. But Osborne and Crover felt that Preston, who had little previous experience, wasn’t prepared to do the work of being in a band. The prospect of signing a contract forced them to make a decision. “Joe was a wet blanket, and we kicked him out,” Osborne says. “He never wrote a lick the whole time he was in the band. We kicked him out when things were just about to go so we wouldn’t have to six months later, when it would be totally complicated.”
There are bad feelings all around. Preston’s supporters grumble that Osborne kicked the bassist out so he and his girlfriend could get more money. Osborne says Preston tried to steal equipment when he moved out of the house. About leaving the band, Preston now says, “It was a weird scene, and I’m glad I’m out of it.” In May, Black left the group a second time when her health failed again and her romance with Osborne ended. Dave Alexander filled in on bass for a while, and the Melvins have not yet found a permanent member.
Purists are right to worry that the Melvins may be changing their sound. Although it was Atlantic’s idea to exploit Nirvana’s fame by paying Cobain to produce (“I’m more than willing to whore myself for them,” the novice knob-man says), Osborne is hoping Kurt will teach him how to write more accessible songs. “This is our filth album, and I’ve been the basic songwriter on all the stuff,” he says, “and I’m really concerned with not having it all sound the same. I thought that a collaboration with Kurt might be an inspiration. He’s got a better sense of melody than I do.”
Within the interview, Osborne waffles in that endlessly debated balance between accessibility and sellout. “We have the chance to open ourselves to a lot of people. But I don’t want to write ‘come-as-you-are’ hits. And I don’t think it’s time for us to do another three-octave, muffle-dragging side of a record. Talking about it, it sounds a lot more drastic than it’s going to be. Our record’s not going to sound much different from any of our other ones…”
For his part, Cobain’s coming from the opposite direction — working with the Melvins is his chance to get back to his dissonant, underground roots. Nirvana recorded their upcoming album in just a few weeks, with noise-puritan Steve Albini producing; it’s so inaccessible that Nirvana is now re-recording parts of it, and that project is interfering with the completion of the Melvins’ album. Previously, when Osborne wanted to spend time with Cobain in preproduction, going over songs for a few days, Cobain’s schedule didn’t permit it. “I respect Buzz’s songwriting so much I don’t want to fuck with it,” Cobain says.
STUDIO WORK with the Melvins and Cobain is a lesson in slacker lassitude. Although Cobain offers some direction (most successfully, having Crover play on a small drum kit in a big room, rather than vice versa), Nirvana’s singer is along mostly to give the seal of approval. Burnside does most of the work and brings the only palpable excitement. “The Melvins are my favorite rock band,” he gushes. “They’re the only rock band I like.” Yet there’s a constant strain to their lethargy; only the good-natured Crover seems immune to the nervy, nervous, nerved-out agitation. Osborne especially is a pillar of stress. He has an uncomfortable amount of energy, but he’s practically a shut-in, retreating into the house whose dark-wood walls he and Lori have covered with weird toy’s and devil masks. With his black, curly, mohawked hair he’s a freak, yet he suffers from businessmen’s ailments — a chronic ulcer, kidney stones — and for a 28-year-old, his bitterness runs deep. He mocks everyone and everything — Seattle, Nirvana, Atlantic — with a disillusionment born of confirmed pessimism. The Melvins’ songs are operatically nihilistic. The titles of the books around his and Lori’s living room include A Criminal History of Mankind, Modern Primitives and Satan Wants You. You can understand why Shirley Temple Black asks, according to her daughter, “Didn’t the Green River killings stop when Buzz moved?”
Seven months after they first started recording, the Melvins’ album still is not done. Tentatively titled Houdini, it’s now slated for an early fall release. Some bands spend this much time laboring to create what they hope, at least, are master works. But the Melvins aren’t struggling with the creative process — they just haven’t been able to finish. Cobain’s schedule, and the problems with Nirvana’s next album, have caused him to miss about half the Melvins’ sessions. “The only reason the album’s taking so long is waiting for Kurt to hurry up and finish his record,” says Crover. Osborne has worried himself into the hospital over less. Perhaps this is his lesson in patience.
Even when Cobain is present, it can seem like there’s no there there. Lounging on a couch outside the control room, as all eyes and ears clock his every move, Cobain seems restless, itching to say something. “Lori,” he finally blurts out. “Huh?” the spaciest Melvin responds. “Hi,” Kurt says, apparently greeting her for the first time.
© Evelyn McDonnell, L.A. Weekly, 17 June 1993